What do God and your creativity have to do with each other?
This is the question Images and Idols by Thomas Terry and J. Ryan Lister seeks to answer. There’s a tension there for many, and most fall into camps of either being afraid theology will hamper creativity or that art will lead to bad theology or distract from “more important things.”
As a classical musician, I don’t really fit the creative mold – I love the rules and structure. So the draw of the book for me was the theology behind the importance sometimes put on creativity. At times this seems like something that sounds nice, but too many run-ins with theology that sounds nice but doesn’t hold up to scrutiny has made me skeptical… especially when that theology comes from creatives (I guess even as a musician I still fall into the critical side of things, wanting to be extra-careful that the theology is sound. I am the one who complains about speculation and bad theology in Christmas carols). That the book is co-authored by someone whose theology I trust gave me more confidence.
Essentially, the argument goes like this: the first thing we learn about God in Scripture is that He is Creator. We are in His image, therefore when we create (derivatively) we are reflecting His image.
This leads to four questions dealt with in the book (this isn’t the book’s structure per se but broader categories most of the discussion falls into).
What is creativity? Lister and Terry define it as “any and all works of imagination done for God and for good” (pg. 18).
Why does our creativity matter? As mentioned above, creativity matters because it is one way we reflect God’s image in our humanity. The authors also discuss the beauty in God and in the world He made. They also argue that beautiful art often has a glimmer of transcendence that can lift our eyes to God – whether that leads to worship for a believer or to searching for an unbeliever.
What are the bounds of our creativity (and why are there bounds)? Like all of the Christian life, we are to submit to Christ with our creativity and allow it to be directed by our love for God and others. Our creativity is for God’s glory and the good of others. I appreciated their discussion on theology informing art whether or not the “tree’s root system” of explicit theology is seen (pg. 62), even as God speaks in general and special revelation (pg. 117). This has been something I keep thinking about as a mom, because the main “boundary” I come up against is that of priorities: my time and energy are taken up with raising my kids, and that is my work right now with most creative work being a hobby (though raising kids and homeschooling and housekeeping have their own forms of creativity).
What should the goal of our creativity be? This was touched on above, but this quote on page 80 in the middle of a discussion of idolatry summarizes it well: “Creativity wasn’t built for your kingdom, it was built for God’s.” This question also draws on the goal of the New Creation and its influence on the present. “The new creation steers our creativity toward its proper destination while our creativity helps the new creation promises break into the world we now know” (pg. 134).
That was only a very brief summary of main questions brought up and dealt with in Images and Idols. But it has so much more in it, both in depth with those questions, and in talking about God’s creative and re-creative activity in the world and in His people, in the present and the future (a glimpse of that discussion: “The Creator creatively became created to recreate His creation.” [pg. 95]). His creativity is what directs the world, not yours. You can rest (134).
There was a lot that stirred my hear to worship and rejoice, but they certainly did not ignore the topic of idolatry, which was convicting. “Idolatry is what happens when image bearers become image makers with creation’s images” (pg. 75). They discuss the need for the Christian’s creativity to be to please and glorify God, out of and for the worship of Him, and God’s desire to have all of us, not just our creativity, and how we are more important than our art (pg. 139).
Ultimately, Terry and Lister show that Christianity and creativity are not at odds. God is over, not against, creativity. If our creativity is not under His Lordship, then it is our lord, not Him (pg 106-107). “What if your chains aren’t Christianity but the popular claims of the world? What if you’re actually enslaved to your creativity? And what if we told you that the thing you love about your creativity—that glimmer of transcendence that captivates you—is actually a distant reflection of the God of Scripture reflected in your image bearing?” (pg. 109)
– It is, by their own admission, imbalanced, as the point of the book is to zoom in on one facet of the image of God. But if you keep that in mind, I don’t think it’s really a problem.
– Most cultural references and examples of art are modern popular culture. I’m not big into Marvel, etc. but I generally was able to understand what was going on without that, but it may make it harder for some in the more classical world.
– At times it is repetitive, especially with a lack of synonyms – but at times that’s it’s strength, because it leads to quotes like these – “Christ cares about your creativity because He cares about creatives” (pg. 106), and the quote above about idolatry and the Creator becoming created to recreate His creation. Some of this repetitiveness is also from the book’s structure not being by topic but as more of a biblical theology tracing it from creation to New Creation.
– I would have liked more definition. I mentioned their definition of creativity, but I think some sections would have made more sense had they taken the time to explain it more or explain “imagination.” We often think of imagination as related to things like fantasy novels, which makes it seem odd to talk about God being imaginative. But if imagination is thinking beyond what is seen, then the incarnation is “imaginative” and “creative,” and though we see God revealed in word, nature, and Jesus, then imagination is needed to a degree in understanding Him because He is not seen. I would also want to pursue this idea into imagination into areas of life that aren’t seen as art/creative, such as the home kitchen (can it really be a glimpse of transcendence in the oven spring of a good loaf of sourdough?), and into the lives of those who aren’t “creatives.”
– It does avoid a lot of the speculation that comes up in other books on creativity. But there are still some things that I would have liked more supported, not so much in a statement being false but having more weight than I see in Scripture.
– The writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. I don’t know who wrote what parts, but I know from Thomas Terry’s spoken word and Ryan Lister’s Emblems of the Infinite King that they are both word wizards and have a way of saying things in a way that makes them new and full of wonder.
– I was convicted frequently about my own heart and desires in creating, especially as I read this while writing my lament.
– While I would still like to pursue some of these questions further Scripturally, I do see more biblical basis for the importance of creativity than I did before.
– The discussion of glimpsing transcendence through creativity/art/beauty was encouraging to me amidst the mundane.
So in summary: Creativity is from God and for God, bounded by greatest commandment; it is for love of God and others, to glorify Him, not me, for showing glimpses of Him/transcendence to world, and to inspire worship and wonder for Him. Do it in a way “that you cannot run fast enough to lay your art at the foot of God’s throne” (pg. 118).
There are two more forthcoming and I cannot wait!
(Also, for anyone else who reads it and isn’t very familiar with Humble Beast, an explanation of the letters on the cover is not to be found in the book. I thought I was an idiot because I could not figure them out from the book, only to find that they weren’t there. They stand for Creativity, Humility, Theology, and Doxology – all themes of the book but not stated like that!)